Army veteran uses art to cope with PTSD
It felt like a punch to the gut.
James Gillon stepped off the plane in 2009 and felt the dry Afghanistan heat bombard his 19-year-old face like an enemy attack. But even more than the heat, he felt uncertain and alone.
Why did I do this? What was I thinking? Why am I here?
“That was probably the first and last time I ever got to feel that,” Gillon said. “You barely have enough time to think so you don’t have time to feel.”
Now, at age 27 and living in Morganton, Gillon feels a lot. He can feel the physical scar on his ribs from his time in the Army and the emotional scars of how brutal war can be. But when the emotions get too strong or when the thoughts get too deep, he creates something — something new to feel.
Gillon, who was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after coming home from war, is a Morganton-based artist who has been creating both paintings and wooden art to cope with his disorder.
“ I couldn’t paint PTSD,” Gillon said. “I could not quantify it I don’t think. It’s a mix of a lot of things that people maybe aren’t so well aware of. Yes, there are triggers. Yes, it is constant. A lot of PTSD, for me at least, is an array of things.”
Gillon was diagnosed after returning to his Colorado base in February 2010 — after losing 10 comrades, after being blown up multiple times and after struggling to return to the United States because he had just spent months in Afghanistan doing what he loved to do.
He dropped from 178 pounds to 138 pounds over seven months, his physical test scores declined and he began going days without sleep. But on July 3, 2010, Gillon did something that helped him realize he needed help.
He was walking to his girlfriend’s car when the fireworks began going off to celebrate the holiday. And while the sound of a firework is distinct from the sound of a gun to someone who has spent time in war, he instinctively dove across the car, took her down and stayed on top of her until the sounds stopped. His actions caused $700 worth of damage to the car, he said.
“ And now we’re not going where we are going because I basically tackled this girl to the ground,” he said. “That was probably one of my big hints that OK, you need to do something with this. This is not constructive or anything. It’s not going to get you anywhere.”
Gillon entered a 21-day impatient rehabilitation program, but rehabilitation is not a cure, he said. He still deals with many of the symptoms. But in 2012, while living in Asheville, things began to click.
The person he was living with at the time had art supplies lying around. And at the same time, Gillon began turning on Bob Ross videos to help him fall asleep.
“ If you got 15 minutes for a nap, you put in a Bob Ross video, you’re out in three,” Gillon said. “Happy little trees and all that stuff put me to sleep. But I guess there’s some truth that you can put some headphones in and learn something while you sleep because two weeks later, I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to paint something.’ So I did.”
He started by following along with the videos but suddenly stopped to begin drawing tattoos. And once he did that for a while, he suddenly stopped again to return to painting.
“ I realized that every time I came back to whatever I was coming back to, it had improved,” Gillon said. “So my painting improved my drawing, my drawing improved my painting and all down the line. And this helped me realize I had my own style.”
If Gillon had to describe his style, he would call it a combination of modern street art and old-school Sailor Jerry tattoo. And this style developed while at Western Piedmont Community College, where he began studying art in 2014 on the GI Bill after his benefits were cut.
Classes taught him theories and what should and shouldn’t be done in a painting. However, Gillon said he likes to push the boundaries to try things that go against what is commonly accepted.
“ If it rubs you the wrong way, cool — it’s part of it,” Gillon said. “If you are kind of picking up what I was putting down, even better.”
And multiple people have been picking up on what he’s doing. Gillon said he has sold some of his paintings and that people have become interested in some of the woodwork he recently has been creating.
“ I don’t know what they are doing with it once they buy it,” Gillon said. “They could be burning it. But it’s kind of cool for people to appreciate the time or the message.”
And the time he puts into each painting varies. Sometimes he’ll come down to his basement where he works and spend just a few minutes. Sometimes, five hours will pass without him even knowing.
Gillon said the motivation to work comes from everywhere — perhaps a post on Facebook or a memory from war.
“ I come down here and get lost, and it can be any number of things that sends me down here,” Gillon said. “I’ll come down here and apply it, however that may be. Or I’ll come down here because I have nothing else to do. It’s kind of a nice catchall. If it’s cold, it’s raining, I’m bored, it’s snowing.”
Although his PTSD contributes to a lot of his art, the outcome rarely is directly related to war. Although, there is one exception.
One of Gillon’s favorite paintings has only been seen by himself and the people in his class, and it was created in response to a photo of a soldier he saw on Facebook.
The photo’s caption explained the poster’s frustration with a lawmaker who said an 18 year old could not responsibly vote, although someone can fight in a war at the same age.
“ I wanted (my painting to) look like nothing fit — like (the soldier’s) clothes didn’t fit him, his helmet is way too big, the rifle is huge in comparison to everything,” Gillon said. “I just wanted to give the sense that that was a kid fighting — not a man. Like, that was kind of how I saw myself when I went over there — I was a kid.”
And being a kid and having to fight for his life has affected Gillon in unimaginable ways.
It took a while for Gillon to realize that not every bag of trash on the road is a roadside bomb. It took a while to quit counting how many people are in the room, and he still sometimes believes that people who take turns behind him in their cars are following him.
“ Everybody stares at you like you are the village idiot (when you show signs of PTSD), and if you would remove the background that no one knows that you have, you are the village idiot,” Gillon said. “By the time they ask (what’s wrong), if they have the nerve to, in my scenario, I’ve removed myself already. And I think that’s what gets a lot of guys in trouble — they go home. And they continue the party by themselves at home.”
But when Gillon goes home, he has a canvas or a block of wood — he’s one of the lucky ones. And now that he has art, he maybe can encourage someone to deal with their disorders in a positive way, he said.
“I’ve got a scar from Afghanistan,” Gillon said. “I can remember that because I can see it — it’s something I can hold, I can touch. So now that I can transition out of that, I can now touch and hold, in my opinion, some cool things, some nice things, what I perceive as nice. If somebody else doesn’t (think they are nice), I don’t really care. This is for me.”
Ryan Wilusz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 828-432-8941.
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